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New database links patient Facebook posts to medical records for health insight

by Thomas Dworetzky , Contributing Reporter
Many adult social media users are fine with sharing Facebook and Twitter data, and medical data, for research. A new study, being called the first of its kind, found that more than half of over 5,000 patients approached were on Facebook or Twitter and as many as 71 percent of these social media users were comfortable with doctors accessing their accounts to compare with their health records.

Such access can be of tremendous health care value. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania described in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety how they used the data to build a language databank that may let social media content connect to health outcomes.

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"We don't often think of our social media content as data, but the language we use and the information we post may offer valuable insights into the relationship between our everyday lives and our health," noted Dr. Raina M. Merchant, senior author, director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab and an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine.

"Finding ways to effectively harness and mine that data could prove to be a valuable source of information about how and why patients communicate about their health. There is a rich potential to identify health trends both in the general public and at the individual level, create education campaigns and interventions, and much more. One of the unique aspects of this data is the ability to link social media data with validated information from a health record," she continued.

Merchant and her team got their study population from volunteer ER patients. The language databank — of nearly 1.4 million posts and tweets to Facebook and Twitter going back in some cases to 2009 — contained almost 12 million words. The data let researchers find correlations between online content and health.

Some of the information was clearly medical, such as "I forgot to take my water pill for my heart failure today." Other data was less direct, like pictures of meals with salty foods. The researchers also found that patients with a given diagnosis in their electronic medical record were significantly more likely to use medical terms based on that diagnosis in social media posts.

"These findings suggests that social media is a promising avenue for exploring how patients conceptualize and communicate about their specific health issues," said Lyle Ungar, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science, and a co-author of the study. "We see this as just the first of many studies to come, examining the relationship between health and social media."

Work on the databank continues. "Just as genetic information is banked to track potential future health, previously unobservable social media postings — made up of words, language, and conversations — may also be banked from consenting individuals and evaluated for potential correlations with health and health outcomes," Merchant noted.

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